Both the new novel by Muriel Spark and the one by Iris Murdoch are as imponderable as they are entertaining, and that is not all they have in common. They have Muriel Spark in common. Iris Murdoch’s An Accidental Man presents the eccentricities of bed-sitter people in London, and its bounders and bachelors are quite like those who inhabited the early fiction of Muriel Spark, and who even lend something of themselves to the extraordinary mortals in the relatively disembodied recent work Not to Disturb. Both books also have Ivy Compton-Burnett in common. Outcrops of what seems very like her sibylline language might be taken to indicate a line of descent, a weird sisterhood, for these literary women.
Muriel Spark’s omniscient butler burnettly declares: “There is a vast difference between events that arise from and those that merely follow after each other. Those that arise are preferable.” Iris Murdoch’s novel has not only bounders but burnetts—important people who say: “I feel like Cassandra. I feel hollow. Silence is best or else a scream.” “Preferable,” “best”—this is the language of someone who knows. Ivy Compton-Burnett was a prophetess, too: there’s an omniscience that foretells her stories, a divinity that shapes her ends. And foreknowledge and divinity form the least ponderable part of the subject matter of these two new books.
I don’t want to labor these sisterly resemblances, since it might make the new novels seem oppressive, when in fact their touch is light. There is no lightness in Ivy Compton-Burnett. And in the two living ladies omniscience is a theme rather than, as in Compton-Burnett, a status. I don’t doubt that for much of the time the resemblances are a matter of craft, of copying. The new books are about plans and scenarios, about what is designed and what is accidental, what godlike persons may cause and arrange and what escapes their fiat. These godlike activities can be compared—and in Not to Disturb are compared—with the art of the novelist. Both books tell tall stories, and the escape from probability seems meant to assist in the development of a kind of parable.
An English butler is a mighty god, and Muriel Spark’s is named Lister. Led by Lister, the servants of a baron’s house by the shores of Lake Leman near Geneva intend to cash in on the violent deaths of master, mistress, and secretary by selling their stories, in the manner of authors, to the media. This story is told in the present tense. Not only are the victims as good as dead: they are dead. What will be will be—and already is, give or take one or two unforeseen contingencies. Lister broods over his fait accompli as the shutters rattle in the wind and an idiot son—whose claim on the inheritance proves stronger than was anticipated, so that the design is deftly modified—bangs about in the attic.
Lister says of his lord and lady: “They have placed themselves, unfortunately, within the realm of predestination.” “You talk,” runs the retort, “like a Secretary of State to the Vatican.” But the reader is less likely to think of the Vatican than of that former Geneva, Calvin’s, and of the “nasty surprises” which were predicted by him to be in store for everyone when they died. These are the words of a former Muriel Spark, and she was taught to believe in these surmised surprises when she was young in Edinburgh. Later she warmed to Rome, but perhaps she still believes in them.
The servants don’t, I take it, cause the deaths that occur in that locked library: there’s an unwholesomeness about the murderees, a tendency to promiscuity and pornophilia, which is felt to be responsible for their own demise, which seems to place them in harm’s way—and this thought, too, is in the best traditions of Geneva. The deaths are in the nature of a donnée, and what these divine servants are responsible for is the knowledge of the deaths that ensues when the library is unlocked. This above all is what these Skinnerian conditioners can be said to control.
The scenario for the crime is not Lister’s alone: the other servants contribute generously. Clovis compiles from tape recordings “a first-rate movie script” on the subject. “You edited those tapes perfectly”—someone praises the chef’s chef-d’oeuvre. At which “Clovis remains mute.” This is a response which the novel itself may arouse even in those readers who wish to praise it. Mannered, trim, playful, and cryptic, it is a prose poem that is also a performance that is also a puzzle. It calls to mind the games played in Muriel Spark’s early verse, and represents, on her part, a further forgetting of the uneasy realism practiced in The Mandelbaum Gate.
It tells, as I say, an unlikely story, and there’s some doubt whether it’s a story about art or about revolution. The book shows that there’s a life below stairs more interesting than the High Life which is all that survives of the ancien régime: the servants usurp the world of titles and travels, they expropriate and seduce. Yet—like many another revolution—this revolution isn’t one at all. The people do not take over: art and the media do. As in that other, and less happy, recent novel of hers, The Public Image, what is often at issue is publicity and the manipulation of fact for the purposes of publicity. The unlikely events in the chateau have a parallel in such activities as those of the Listers of the Ulster IRA who have designed their murders for the international television screen, and manipulated the contingent efforts of the Civil Rights marchers and the British Army. A cast of thousands.
There’s nothing trim about Iris Murdoch’s novel, which is a welter of loves, bereavements, plights and sub-plights, and which requires a dramatis personae of Tolstoyan dimensions. If the chief subject matter of Muriel Spark’s book has to do with the behavior of media people, Iris Murdoch’s most appealing subject matter has to do with an assortment of decayed gentlefolk, with the error of their ways and the comedy of their errors. They are socialists of a sort, the sort that doesn’t have to struggle home through the rush hour, snobs of a sort, subsisting on whisky, legacies, and high-mindedness in that home of the brave, West London. The mosses and harebells of their stagnant lives are carefully tended: here is a “culture” of poverty in which the sponger is next of kin to the diplomat. The “fearfully English English” in the book belong to a stock that stretches back beyond the Pre-Raphaelites (the louche and the soulful alike) and was turned out until recently by the more ancient progressive schools (who taught them to be “twee” and talk about “our own funny special place” when they meant their house).
Of the depressive Dorina it is said: “A Victorian watercolorist could have conveyed that frail yet bony look.” Dorina herself is a failed watercolorist, and I was reminded of the Times obituary of a former ambassador to Turkey in which the same failure was fondly remembered. Austin Gibson Grey is Dorina’s husband, and a bounder. Mavis, a former Catholic, is Dorina’s sister, and a saint. Matthew is Austin’s brother, a failed saint and a former ambassador to Japan: he and Austin are at loggerheads in some primordial fashion. Nearly everyone is failed or former.
Austin is, as one critic has put it, “perhaps a murderer”—of his first wife Betty: it is mainly in novels that people are perhaps murderers, as they are also in Muriel Spark’s, and this may be a clue to the kind of novels these are—novelist’s novels, perhaps. Austin kills a child in a car, then damages the brain of the child’s stepfather, drives one woman to a suicide attempt, and drives Dorina into a terminal gloom during which, like Betty, she drowns. And so the errors and plights proliferate, some of them by no means comic, though it’s difficult to grieve about them as much as the characters themselves do.
These English are joined by an American, a student called Ludwig. In neither book is America a very congenial presence. “They always ring in the middle of the night from the United States of America,” Lister says, and Ludwig’s parents do so when he refuses to fight in the Vietnam war and to return home to face the music as a conscientious objector, and moreover becomes engaged to Gracie, who becomes an heiress. What matters is not the rights and wrongs of this refusal to fight but the siting of the decision in a world from which God has absconded and in which, in His place, there’s a pantheon, a polytheism, of funny special ladies and gentlemen. “It’s as if,” says Mavis, “I am God.” Sacrilege is felt to have been committed against Matthew. Dorina died for others. Austin is a devil. And yet God is not wholly absent, after all. Matthew’s Ting cup is seen “as God sees it.” At times Iris Murdoch talks about her deep things fluently and unctuously, and theologically, like a Secretary of State to the Vatican: at other times she’s more like a Manichee, a heresiarch. In both these novels childhood teachings might seem to count for quite a lot.
The comic subject matter of cadgers and inheritors, of a variety of straits and expedients, is open to interpretation in terms of class and income, as being the description of a comparatively new mode of alienation, of a new poor, but the writer herself doesn’t encourage that response. Appealing as it is, the comedy seems to appeal rather less to her than does her theology lesson or parable, which has to do with the validation of decisions and which the comic scenes seldom support or enhance. The copiousness of the book comes to seem callous, with its flow of abstractions and succession of unmoving metaphorical calamities (largely suffered by the old poor).
Penelope Mortimer’s is a very likely story, and she thinks of it as a “tragi-comedy.” Her leading character, Eleanor Strathearn, is due to be divorced after many years of marriage to a fashionable London doctor, which has produced five children. The impending break is likened to a fatal disease. Like a death certificate, a deed of separation ends the book. Here, too, the characters are very English, so it is “inexcusable” to weep: but there’s a good deal of tears. She telephones frequently: to her answering service.
As all this might suggest, the novel is more tragi than comic. The comic stuff is well done, however, and this is an efficient writer who makes good documentary points about the limbo of the abandoned woman. They are not in the least sibylline. Here is Eleanor’s husband Graham being the brutal charming medico at lunch:
“The old fellow had thrombosis and a cardiac disease and a perforated bowel, he could hardly stand up. Anyway, he was also extremely depressed, which wasn’t surprising, and kept on babbling about throwing himself out of windows. So they had him in this hospital, six floors up, and they watched the old fool night and day. One evening he conned the nurses into leaving him alone for two minutes. I swear, two minutes. During that time he heaved himself off a bed that was four feet off the ground, climbed over a chest of drawers and a couple of chairs, got himself up onto the window sill, unscrewed the windows, opened them, and behold—no old fellow, only a nasty mess on the ground six floors down.”
One interesting thing about that passage is that it’s possibly the most interesting in the book. It’s a cunning piece of imitation which adds to the sense of fatality and expresses a considerable scolding energy on the part of the writer. But it also expresses qualities of energy and aplomb in Graham which aren’t evident in his other appearances, where he doesn’t seem sufficiently alive to stand up to the kicking he receives.
Elsewhere he’s apt to behave like a coarse delinquent one would be glad to be rid of. This is perhaps the grimmest of the points made in the novel: that Eleanor nevertheless doesn’t want to lose him. For this is love, nor is she out of it. But it is a little grim, too, that a process of disparagement takes place. Eleanor Strathearn is called Eleanor Strathearn: Graham’s girl-friend, a slut, is comically called Nell (for short) Partwhistle. One of the daughters is “appalled” by the “vulgarity” of her father’s sex life. And when Eleanor invades Graham’s surgery on her last legs, he’s made to say to her, vulgarly: “Blessings on your tiny head.” His own head has been shrunk—for purposes of reproof.
Moravia’s novel also contains a scenario: a film script which, dealing with the public relations activities of a group of upper-class Roman revolutionaries, is adjusted by the hack who’s working on it in obedience to his involvement first with the studio and then with the revolutionaries themselves. All this, however, pales before the running dialogue between the hack and his own penis, hereinafter referred to as “him,” and “him” has most of the best lines. This hack, you see, is a buffoon who despises himself for the “desublimated” condition in which the possession of a phenomenally large and eager cock has marooned him. Sublimation is not being randy, not being philistine, not being a worm, not being “underneath.” Sublimation is being successful and rich, squaring up to the studio tycoon, becoming a director.
The hack envies the revolutionaries: “Flavia and Maurizio had simply moved over from bourgeois sublimation to revolutionary sublimation.” He takes up with a kind of plastic woman who won’t sleep with him and who masturbates regularly in accordance with a set of masochistic mental scenarios. Eventually he returns, erect, to his bulky wife (a former prostitute, as is sometimes the way in Moravia’s scenarios if not in those of life), whom he has spent much of his time insulting.
I haven’t any personal experience of a potency of this magnitude. I’ve read about it, though, and I think perhaps Norman Mailer might have been asked to review Moravia’s “phallic novel.” But I don’t suppose he would have been able to finish it. Is this a joke about Italians who fret about their virility—as if to say: let’s look at someone who is actually worried about being too big and bold? Is it an aggression on the Italian film industry, on the worms who work in the media, on writers less successful than Moravia himself?
We are in a situation where the bluff of male potency has been called by the militant sisterhoods of America and Britain, or so it would seem from the anger they provoke. The penis has sustained its comeuppance, or rather put-down. Tumescence is out. It may be time to put our penises away—in the drawer where some people still keep their rosaries. Well, Moravia’s book may be a timely and enlightened joke about all that. But I don’t think so. The book is on the side of the phallus rather than its detractors. While it doesn’t exactly invite you to come back to Sorrento, there’s more than a hint of the kind of male chauvinism that is thought to exist in Italy. It has some horrible feelings about women, especially those who have the bad taste to grow old. The hack experiences a fiasco when he tries to seduce the tycoon’s elderly wife, and the passage in question appears to outdo, in contempt, Graham’s gerontophobe suicide story: “I felt as if I were handling a number of soft, half-empty cushions of unequal size, attached, more or less, to the structure of her skeleton.”
April 20, 1972